Nov 302009
photo provided courtesy of kaz2803 on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeSub Saharan Africa, West and South Asia
Habitatvaried, including grasslands, deserts, and tropical forests
Nicheopportunistic predator
Favorite Foodhoneybee larvae
Lengthup to 3.5 feet nose to tail tip
Weightup to 30 pounds
StatusLower Risk

When people think of ferocious animals, they think of the big ones – sharks, lions, tigers, bears. But as it turns out, there are few animals on earth that are stouter of heart than a certain mammal no bigger than a terrier. Cross a honey badger and you cross what Guinness named the most fearless mammal on earth.

The honey badger is native to sub-Saharran Africa and South Asia, living in a variety of habitats in its wide range. From dry savanna to dense forest, it trots over great distances in constant search of food to fuel its impressive metabolism. Seeking safe haven in underground burrows or inside rock crevices, the honey badger is an active hunter in the daylight hours. Most badgers are nocturnal and have poor eyesight, relying instead on a highly developed sense of smell to find food. But the honey badger is built for hunting anything it can get its mouth around during the light of day. Everything from worms and termites up to formidable animals like porcupines and snakes are potential sources of food for this miraculous member of the weasel family.

Being active in the daytime is not the only trait that sets the honey badger apart from other badgers. Indeed, it is only distantly related to what are called “true badgers” – a family that includes the familiar American and Eurasian badgers. The honey badger possesses the long digging claws of its cousins, but its teeth are not as adapted for crushing. It has fewer teeth, but those it has are adapted to biting and holding on tight. It also sports a defense that’s more commonly developed in skunks than badgers. If an enemy gets too close, the honey badger will unleash a chemical assault from its backside. Specialized anal glands secret a nauseating liquid that can drive off even the most fearsome foe.

As the name implies, the honey badger is fond of the sweet stuff of honeybees. And remarkably, through the wonders of evolution, it has devised a rather ingenious way of obtaining it. A certain type of bird in Africa, the black-throated honeyguide is its partner in crime. The honeyguide is able to locate bees’ nests by virtue of its flight, but it has no means of plundering the nest by itself. The bird is too small to brave a swarm of bees and tear open a nest to obtain the honey it wants. Instead, it relies on some hired muscle. After it has located a nest, the next step is for the bird to find a nearby honey badger. Communicating through its flight and calls, the bird will then lead the badger to the nest. Undeterred by the stings on its thick hide, the honey badger will rip the nest to pieces with its strong claws, allowing both badger and bird to feast on the sweet reward of honey and bee larvae.

Aside from its interesting relationship with birds, the honey badger is known for its fearless disposition. Its skin is thick and tough, and hangs loosely from its body, reducing damage to vital organs if it is bitten in a fight. But defense is only part of its reputation. The honey badger can dish out punishment with the best of them. If its noxious chemical musk isn’t enough to drive away an assailant, it can bite with great force and will not let go until its adversary loses consciousness or shakes the badger off. The honey badger proves that bravery in the animal kingdom can come in small packages.

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